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Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic

Deliberation, in recent years, has emerged as a form of civic engagement worth reclaiming. In this persuasive book, Sandra M. Gustafson combines historical literary analysis and political theory in order to demonstrate that current democratic practices of deliberation are rooted in the civic rhetoric that flourished in the early American republic.

Though the U.S. Constitution made deliberation central to republican self-governance, the ethical emphasis on group deliberation often conflicted with the rhetorical focus on persuasive speech. From Alexis de Tocqueville’s ideas about the deliberative basis of American democracy through the works of Walt Whitman, John Dewey, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., Gustafson shows how writers and speakers have made the aesthetic and political possibilities of deliberation central to their autobiographies, manifestos, novels, and orations. Examining seven key writers from the early American republic—including James Fenimore Cooper, David Crockett, and Daniel Webster—whose works of deliberative imagination explored the intersections of style and democratic substance, Gustafson offers a mode of historical and textual analysis that displays the wide range of resources imaginative language can contribute to political life.

288 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2011

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature


Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic is an ambitious and critically innovative account of the social and participatory life of politics in the early nineteenth century. Sandra M. Gustafson offers a profoundly suggestive look at how the values of classical republicanism—and the culture of deliberation it inspired—could be retained within and adapted to popular democracy. The book provides a compelling account of the links between literary expression, rhetoric, and republican style in the period, while richly exploring how the experience of literature itself could promote a democratic ethics of deliberation. Gustafson’s brilliant readings powerfully resonate with the concerns of political theorists today who ask whether or not social justice can be served by the pragmatic work and procedures of democratic institutions. This is an important and original book.”

Elisa Tamarkin, University of California, Berkeley

“With characteristic depth and range, Gustafson accomplishes a major rethinking of the very meaning of democracy in early nineteenth-century American culture. The book synthesizes an incredible array of political theory and praxis, and it will prove to be a major study in the field, one that will immediately affect our own deliberations about democratic culture.”

Philip Gould, Brown University

“Boldly interweaving literary and political history, Sandra Gustafson explores the roots of American pragmatism in the discourse and practice of democratic deliberation in the early republic. Stressing the irreconcilability of absolutist imperatives and deliberative self-governance, she offers both a perspective on the past and an admonition for the future. This will be an important book for literary scholars, political theorists, and American historians alike.”

John Brooke, Ohio State University

“This timely book traces and attempts thereby to resuscitate the centrality of deliberative dynamics to American political and cultural life. . . . The great strengths of this book are the comprehensiveness and nuance of Gustafson’s analysis and the relevance of her project to a nation poised, then as now, on the brink of an ideological abyss; her final chapter constructs a reading praxis wherein textual representations of debate and deliberation serve to constitute a readerly subjectivity open to the experiences and needs of diverse populations—one from which all Americans, not just literary scholars and historians, can benefit. Highly recommended.”


“Sandra Gustafson’s book Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic is a fascinating, careful, and lucid portrait of deliberative democracy in the period 1800-39.”

Early American Literature

“Eloquence is power, and Imagining Deliberative Democracy abounds with both.”


“[Gustafson] demonstrates that we can read across genres and across the centuries in the quest to shed light on urgent contemporary social and political issues. Moreover, she does not strain to do so, tossing out the names of ten Continental philosophers en route to a multilingual aperçu that requires years of study to appreciate or apply. . . . Gustafson, like the orators that she lauds, models for her readers a mode of public address that is measured, eloquent, plain-spoken, intellectual, complex, and, thankfully, imitable.”

Review 19

 “This book is an example of focused and relevant early American studies at its best.”

Journal of American History

“In her important new book, Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic, Sandra Gustafson offers a rich and provocative account of what we might call the ‘encumbered selves’ who fashioned practices of deliberation in the early nineteenth-century United States. . . . Gustafson’s prior work has already established her reputation as a broadly interdisciplinary scholar of early America with a talent for bringing literary and archival material together in surprising and original ways. Imagining Deliberative Democracy  enhances that reputation and expands her reach further into the field of American civic culture.”

Journal of the Early Republic

Table of Contents



Chapter One: Deliberation: A Very Brief History

     i. The Idea of Deliberation

     ii. Deliberation and Democracy in the Early American Republic

     iii. Whitman, Dewey, and the Place of the Arts

     iv. Theories of Republicanism and Deliberative Democracy

Chapter Two: Modern Republicanism in the Atlantic World

     i. The Eloquence of Modern Republicanism

     ii. The View from Bunker Hill

     iii. Writing the Modern Republic

Chapter Three: Models of Ancient Eloquence

     i. Res Publica Rediviva

     ii. Eloquent Shakespeare

     iii. Arguing with the Bible

Chapter Four: The Politics and Aesthetics of Deliberation

     i. The Rise of Literary Oratory

     ii. Daniel Webster’s Genuine Word

     iii. The Frontier Humor of David Crockett

Chapter Five: Prophesying the Multiracial Republic

     i. Democracy and the “Three Races”

     ii. Beyond the White Christian Republic

     iii. Reasoning with David Walker

     iv. Listening to the Wisdom of Babes

     v. Toward Multiracial Deliberations

Chapter Six: Deliberative Fictions

     i. Failures of Deliberation

     ii. Cooper’s Trials

Chapter Seven: How to Read Deliberatively

     i. Democratic Hermeneutics

     ii. The Great American Deliberative Novel

     iii. Protest at Mashpee

     iv. Property Matters

Conclusion:  Deliberative Democracy Past and Future


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